Violent dawn raid ends sit-in at church

Paris crackdown: Bells toll to raise alarm ... then military-style operation evicts immigrants after hunger strikes and two-month protest
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The Independent Online
The vast police operation began shortly before 7.30 yesterday morning, when the first ambulances, police vans and buses drew up in the vicinity of the church of St Bernard, a neo-Gothic building in a quiet square between the Gare du Nord and Montmartre.

Inside, according to one witness, there was fury and tears, but little panic. A long campaign by several hundred illegal immigrants to remain in France came to a precipitate end as riot police used tear-gas and batons to evict them from the Paris church they had occupied for the past two months.

The move came less than 24 hours after the government was advised by a legal body that the immigrants, mostly from Francophone Africa and the Maghreb, had no right to stay in the country. Ten protesters, who had just embarked on the fiftieth day of a hunger strike, were taken to hospital. More than 200 others, including many children, were transported to a detention centre in eastern Paris. Officials said "several dozen" could have their status in France regularised; the rest are expected to be deported within the next 24 hours.

The shout went up to ring the church bells, the agreed alarm signal. Chairs and benches were piled behind the doors in a vain attempt to slow police progress.

The priest, Henri Coinde, who had refused to sign any authorisation for police intervention since the occupation began on 28 June, asked for classical music to be played on the organ and remained at the altar, reading from Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

The 300 protesters sat down in the nave, with their children in their arms. The first detachment of police burst in only a few minutes later, simultaneously through all four entrances. They had cut through the fastening of the iron gates and hacked down the wooden doors. They ringed the hunger- strikers, who were in sleeping bags in an alcove behind the altar, grabbed the microphone from the priest as he reached a passage about "observing human dignity" and tried to separate the single men from the families.

At the first sign the group was being divided, there were screams, and fists flew. The police used their batons; tear-gas filled the air, but the police deny using it in the church. Outside, supporters lay down in front of the buses that drew up to take the immigrants away. They were removed just as summarily as the protesters inside.

Professor Leon Schwarzenberg, a left-wing scientist prominent in his support of the protest from the start, was forcibly carried away. The actress Emannuelle Beart, who had slept in the church during the last week of the protest, picked up a small child and refused to let him go; she was arrested and led out of the church to a van, to cheers from the small crowd around the church precinct. She was later released without charge.

By 10am the operation was almost over. It had involved1,000 officers: city police, riot police and plainclothes police (bizarrely identified as such by red armbands). Awnings and mattresses to one side of the church, where the campaign headquarters had been, a pair of women's sandals in the gutter, and a child's toy car lying in the road, were all that visibly remained of the protest.

A hundred or so supporters of the immigrants remained within the police cordon, but the church was empty and guarded all round like a military object.

Outside the front gate, a woman upbraided a trio of policemen in riot gear: "A church, how could you? Sheer profanity." In the windows and doorways of the tall apartment buildings surrounding the square were little clusters of people, watching. From one window hung a tired-looking banner saying "No expulsions" in big awkward letters.

Beyond the police cordon, supporters of the protesters, including many wearing trade-union stickers, chanted: "First, second, third or fourth generation/ We are all children of immigrants." Police officers checked their street maps and listened to their walkie-talkies.

While the operation attracted a welter of condemnation from the political left and from many churchmen, including the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, it was applauded by many on the right, including the extreme-right National Front. From all sides, however, there was severe criticism of the government for allowing what began as a localised protest to grow into a national crisis resolved only by force.

Yesterday's operation was the third big mobilisation of police against the same group of illegal immigrants, the third opportunity for supporters to rally, and the third harrowing photo-opportunity for the media. The government is reported to have military aircraft on standby for the inevitable deportations. No commercial company would even consider leasing its aircraft: "It would be disastrous publicity for the airline," one representative said, declining to be named.